What will it take to open schools in North Carolina this fall?

Today, Gov. Roy Cooper, State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson announced that remote learning will continue for the rest of the school year, but the governor is confident schools will be open this fall.

Cooper said, “Already, we know that even the next school year will not be business as usual. There will be new measures in place to protect health when school buildings open again next year. This pandemic will be with us for some time. But I have every confidence that we will find a way to get schools open safely in the new school year.”

A teacher writes, “I am curious about how we are going to re-open in the fall without a vaccine in place. Probably half of my students go home to a grandparent. If the state says we are going back, it won’t happen if parents don’t believe their families will be safe. I am 59 and reasonably healthy, but I am concerned about my health as well as the health of older teachers. What are your thoughts?”

This teacher is not the first person to ask me a question like this. I’ve heard versions of it from board members, philanthropists, and policymakers. They ask me, “What are you hearing? What are leaders thinking and saying about the path forward?”

As a lawyer, the first thing that comes to mind with a question like this is the perils of hearsay. As a policy analyst and researcher, who used to be known for footnoting every sentence, it’s really hard not to have sources for you. But this is all, as they say, “novel,” and in my role at EdNC, I am charged with answering your questions.

So, let’s make a deal. I’ll share with you what I am hearing and learning if you will tweet @Mebane_Rash and tell me what you are hearing and learning.

Scenario planning

Districts are planning for different scenarios. One scenario is what we think of as normal or the previous status quo. Another scenario has students back in school but with social distancing. This scenario includes looking at the calendar and schedule flexibility that would be required to pull this off. Another scenario would continue remote learning. And hybrid models are also being considered. For example, students tracked out of school because of social distancing guidelines would have remote learning opportunities on the days they are at home. Or a district might revert to remote learning if COVID-19 rebounds in their community for a spell.

In a recent webinar, JB Buxton, a member of the State Board of Education, talked about the need to have in place remote learning plans with high-quality instructional materials, curricular resources, clear lesson plans and units of study, and engaging activities for the academic year.

He said, “I think as a state we have to recognize that if we don’t give teachers the benefit of high-quality instructional materials that literally plan out the year — that they can then be creative and build on top of but that create a base equality — that’s an equity agenda and that’s something that they deserve.”

The planning is different for our itty-bitties, pre-teens, and teens

All of these scenarios are being differentiated for elementary, middle, and high school students.

Buxton said, “I think if we see another wave of pandemic flu down the road, another hurricane event that has schools out for a month, we should know that it’s always going to be hard for K-5 to be resilient with a fully remote program. That’s just a hard thing to ask a second grader to be on the screen six hours a day at home. I think 6-8 is even tough, especially with the social-emotional developmental work going on. High schools, to me, is a different story.”

Learning from our state’s experience with early colleges, Buxton said, “There are different forms of school that address different kids’ needs. We’ve learned something about collaborative institutions that pull together our high schools and community colleges and universities. I think this moment shows us — again assuming some ubiquity of connectivity and device access — we shouldn’t have high school as disrupted as it is today.”

This is an opportunity, Buxton said, “for high schoolers to be more on a path of degree and credential completion, more on a path that they may be working remotely because they are in apprenticeships or internships.”

North Carolina has what amounts right now to a state secret. Our virtual public school is the second largest in the country. Here is more information about NCVPS.

In an interview with EdNC’s Alex Granados, Eliz Colbert, the executive director of NCVPS, said they have the infrastructure to roll out statewide instruction in grades 6-12. However, they don’t have enough staff, including teachers, to do this right away. “There are always money barriers,” she said. One wonders if the districts could loan their best teachers to NCVPS?

But elementary school is tricky, as Buxton said, and according to Granados, NCVPS does not have the ability to take over the teaching of our youngest students.

The teacher who wrote me said, “All bets are off for elementary schools. I don’t know how that can work.”

And yet elementary schools will need to provide some in-person learning opportunities for students as parents begin to go back to work.

Environmental and health considerations

Several environmental and health factors are being considered for the in-person scenarios.

Denmark is the first country to reopen schools, and the lessons learned will provide some early guidance on what to do and not to do. They met social distancing guidelines by adding more classrooms and hiring more teachers.

Under what circumstances will masks be required? Who will provide the masks? What are best practices for the use of masks in schools?

How often should students and teachers be required to wash their hands throughout the day?

Should classrooms be shoeless environments to avoid tracking in the virus or other bacteria?

As we learn about how the virus moves and infects, are there HVAC considerations? Will six feet remain the recommended protocol for social distancing?

Under what circumstances will temperature testing be required? Under what circumstances will COVID-19 testing be required? Will there be immunity, and when will antibody testing be available widely? Will there be a treatment? And, until then, what policies need to be in place regarding attending school if students are symptomatic?

What will be best practices for buses and transportation, playgrounds, and cafeterias?

What will be best practices for visitors to the school, including parents?

Most people I talk to think gatherings of larger groups of students — things like indoor school assemblies and pep rallies — are off the table for a while.

What will be best practices for cleaning school facilities?

What will make students, parents, and teachers feel safe enough to return to school?

In the past, when it snows for example, whole districts shut down. There may need to be much more flexibility to have different schools running different scenarios based on virus prevalence and other factors.

In some districts, teachers are all in and seem game to move forward. In other districts, there was teacher-district tension long before COVID-19, and the teachers seem more wary. For some teachers, willingness to show up in person depends on factors like if they are at risk, if they have aging parents, and if their own child care or school for their children is in operation.

Some are concerned that an equity issue will emerge where some parents will be able to choose to keep their children at home relative to the risk, and lower-income parents who need to go back to work will not have as much choice and will assume more risk for their families than they might like.

Back to school considerations

A recent article in The 74, “Federally Mandated State Tests May Be Gone, but There Are Other, Better Ways Educators Can Assess Students During the Shutdown,” says, “When schools and districts reopen their doors to students — whenever that may be — educators will need to quickly gauge where students are.”

What will assessments look like under the different scenarios? There is particular attention being paid to this issue with regards to K-3 and reading.

There is a lot of conversation about professional support and development for teachers. There is also a lot of conversation about what teacher evaluation might look like moving forward, with some models providing the opportunity for principals to learn from teachers as they figure out what works and what doesn’t work and why.

And there is a lot of conversation about engaging parents in co-teaching.

It seems to me that student-led school redesign is being talked about only in the districts where it was already a priority, but it will be interesting to watch how that plays out over the next academic year.

Becoming a futurist: Change management and scenario planning

Amy Webb is a futurist who runs the Future Today Institute, and she teaches leaders all over the world how to consider the need for data, evidence, and certainty when making tactical decisions in the short-term, moving to strategic planning and visioning in the mid-term, and prompting systems change in the longer-term. This virus just compressed Webb’s “strategic time cone” by a lot.

Superintendents are moving through all of these phases all at once. We see them making tactical moves, like how to get students nutrition and online and offline learning opportunities. We see them scenario planning for the fall but also visioning with students and teachers what they want school to look like going forward. And we see them wanting to use this crisis to challenge the status quo and build 21st century learning opportunities tailored for all children.

Your need for data and evidence

We like to have data and evidence, and though it will get better over time, data and evidence are hard to come by right now.

When you ask me about the curve and the different models for watching the curve and whether it is flattening, here is what I can tell you. As a researcher, each day at 11 a.m., I look at how the case count is trending each day in North Carolina. You can see that here.

If you will scroll down a bit on the case count page, you will see a bunch of tabs. I also look at the count by county, which you can see here.

To check in on the statewide curve, I look here. If you scroll down on that page, you will see the cumulative total number of COVID-19 cases by date of specimen collection that were positive. In the grey area, you can see the days in which the count could still go up. Every researcher I know has their favorite data and charts. This is mine.

Until there is a vaccine with wide availability, the virus could rebound, creating hot spots, or there could be a second wave during flu season. Going forward, we will need the data to be localized so districts can make good decisions for individual schools.

Johns Hopkins University rolled out this map with county-level data about a week ago. Click on the county on the map, and then in the pop-up, click on the infographic for more information that looks like this:

One wonders if the data will need to be even more granular by zip code, neighborhood, or census tract.

That’s a whole lot of hearsay and not a single footnote. Helpful? What are you hearing and thinking? Please email me by email at mrash@ednc.org or on Twitter @Mebane_Rash.

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

Ask & Answer Coronavirus K-12 The Editor's Notes